By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - Alabama's Supreme Court Chief Justice was suspended on Friday as he faces possible removal from the bench for ordering state probate judges not to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, despite contrary rulings by a federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission charged Chief Justice Roy Moore, an outspoken opponent of same-sex unions, with violating the state's judicial ethics laws, an allegation that could potentially remove him from office, according to Alabama.com.
The legality of gay marriage had been at the center of a national debate for years until the Supreme Court ruled in June that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry, handing a historic triumph to the American gay rights movement.
Despite the ruling and a federal court ruling that made gay marriage legal in Alabama, Moore issued in January an administrative order to state probate judges, ordering them not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to court documents.
"Chief Justice Moore flagrantly disregarded and abused his authority," the complaint said. "Moore knowingly ordered (probate judges) to commit violations...knowingly subjecting them to potential prosecution and removal from office."
Moore said in a statement that the commission has no authority over administrative orders or the court's ability to prohibit probate judges from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
"We intend to fight this agenda vigorously and expect to prevail," he said.
Moore wrote in his order that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was at odds with a decision in March 2015 by the Alabama Supreme Court that instructed probate judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The conflicting opinions had resulted in "confusion and uncertainty," Moore said, with many probate judges issuing marriage licenses to gay couples while others refused to do so. [uL1N14R283]
Until the Alabama Supreme Court decides the matter, probate judges "have a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license," he said.
The complaint said Moore's order "was contrary to clear and determined law about which there is no confusion or unsettled question."
Moore, a Republican, has been a hero of conservative causes before. In 2003, he was removed from office after a federal judge ruled he was placing himself above the law by refusing to take down a Ten Commandments monument.
He won the chief justice job back in 2012, vowing not to do anything to create further friction with the federal courts.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Ed Davies)